Fishing for Tarpon and Snook in Costa Rica is an amazing experience. In the northwest part of Costa Rica Tarpon average 75 pounds and some exceeding 150 pounds are caught each season. Snook also star in this area as well. In January swarms invade the Rio Colorado and surrounding waters. Tarpon are here by the thousands from January through May. In September and October only scattered tarpon are found in the rivers and lagoons. Instead, they congregate in vast numbers just outside the river mouth in the Caribbean. Most fishing is done in sheltered rivers and lagoons.
The snook in Costa Rica average about five pounds, with many in the 12-pound class. A few 20-pounders are taken. Large snook become more numerous in April and increase in numbers through May. September and October are the best months for taking really big snook, but now the action moves to the beach. Tarpon begin their move inside the rivers in January and build up to a peak during the spring months. It’s not unusual for an angler to jump 30 tarpon in half a day when the fish gather in the deeper areas.
The same fantastic action is often found with snook during their spawning run. In January, a 50 snook catch is possible in half a day’s fishing. In addition to tarpon and snook, anglers can enjoy sport with smaller gamesters such as machaca, guapote, roncador, and mojarra.
Though it’s possible to simply cast a lure into the depths, jig it a couple of times and jump a tarpon and snook almost every cast, this is not always the case. Great fishing does not occur every day in Costa Rica or anywhere else we know about but to experience fishing for Tarpon and Snook in Costa Rica is something not easily forgotten.
Costa Rica Tarpon
Fishing for Tarpon in Costa Rica can be taken in any month of the year. The king of game fish journeys from saltwater into freshwater at will. They roam the warm inshore waters of the Caribbean Sea along the entire Eastern seaboard of Costa Rica as well as venture up the many rivers that flow to the coast. Costa Rica Tarpon commonly travel up the Rio Colorado into the Rio San Juan all the way to Lake Nicaragua. Fishing is more apt to change day to day rather than season to season.
The fish are always present and current local weather conditions will play the major factor in what its feeding habits will be on any given day. Fifteen year resident of the country, Todd Staley lived in the jungle rainforest of Barra del Colorado nearly five years and we consider him somewhat of an authority on the habits of the Costa Rican tarpon.
He caught his first tarpon in Florida at the age of 10 and more than a thousand silver kings later they are still his favorite game fish. When asked by an angler what kind of a day they can expect for fishing tarpon in Costa Rica, Todd always gives the same reply. “On my worst day fishing tarpon here I hooked zero, but on my very best day I jumped sixty. I think I can safely say that you will fall somewhere in between those two numbers.
The best advice he can give is to listen to your guides and fish with the lures and techniques they suggest. Especially if you are an experienced tarpon fishermen and Fishing Costa Rica for the first time, leave that knowledge in your suitcase. The techniques for fighting a tarpon in Costa Rica are universal; the techniques used to fool the tarpon into taking your offering vary from location to location. The locals call them Asabalo.
Costa Rica River Fishing
Tarpon in Costa Rica are always present in the Caribbean and in the river and lagoon systems. The Tarpon travel in huge schools on the ocean and in small pods or singles once they enter the fresh water, although in February, March, and April they occasionally school up in the lagoons. Large groups of tarpon begin entering the rivers in December and travel upstream for several months until they return to the ocean in May.
There are also a few resident fish that for some reason choose to stay inside year round in the rivers and lagoons. Fishing is done on the main river in the holes behind the sandbars formed by the current changes near the river bends. Boats anchor in front of the drop offs and work floating Rapalas or flies back in the holes.
If you are lucky enough to find the tarpon schooled up in a lagoon, casting a 65M MirrOlure or working a fly produces some adrenalin pumping acrobatics when in the shallow water the fish have nowhere to go but up. During the fat Snook run from late November to early February, light tackle anglers are often surprised when an eighty pound tarpon takes in a jig intended for a five pound fish.
Fishing The Costa Rica River Mouths
The nutrients flowing out of the rivers compliment the entire food chain right up to the tarpon, snook, giant jack crevalle, and the assortment of pelagics that pass through seasonally. On a very calm day, one can sneak up behind the sand bars and fool big snook and tarpon laying in ambush.
If there is a swell, the drift is begun just behind the breakers and the lures are worked while drifting out until reaching about a 40 foot depth, then the boats move back in and the process is repeated. When the conditions are right and the fish hungry, it is common to have at least one strike on every drift.
Fishing The Outside
It is an awesome sight to see an acre of tarpon rolling in unison. Tarpon school up off the beaches and just offshore and move up and down the coast and hang in certain areas like the horseshoe shaped tide rip offshore as the blue Caribbean bucks against the dark river water.
Most ocean fishing is done by jigging in 55 to 65 feet of water, which is less than a mile off the beach and fishing rarely is done much deeper. If you’ve heard stories of jumping two or three tarpon on a single cast it was probably done in this area as one fish throws the lure and another takes it as it hits the water.
Where To Fishing for Tarpon in Costa Rica
Barra del Colorado
Barra has the largest watershed on the Eastern seaboard. There are endless miles of creeks and lagoons and three river mouths within a twenty minute run in a boat.Also the Rio Colorado has the bulk of the water running out of Lake Nicaragua and is a highway for tarpon moving inside.
The last pueblo before the Nicaraguan border, it has also less traffic than the areas near the canal that runs inside from Limon to the Barra.
When the ocean is calm and fishing is done outside, Parismina is equally as good as Barra del Colorado or probably anywhere in the world to fish tarpon. On the days the breakers in the river mouth don’t allow a safe passage outside, the fishing can be tough. The smaller area to fish and the boat traffic headed to the nature lodges in Tortugero play into the fish count taken inside the river mouth.
Although primarily visited by nature groups and known as a prime nesting sight for the green turtle, Tortuguero does have lodge operators that offer fishing. Most boats fishing tarpon out of Tortuguero generally head north towards Barra del Colorado looking for tarpon. The rocky bottom outside the Tortuguero river mouth makes it a good area for Snook and cubera snapper as well as for holding king mackerel during the bi-annual migration.
Again, the lack of water area to fish inside as well as boat traffic doesn’t make it our 1st or 2nd choice.
Costa Rica has 8 different varieties of Snook, 4 on the Pacific side and 4 on the Caribbean side.
Snook is a prized game fish in Costa Rica for a couple of reasons. One, they are an intelligent fish and there is a knack to fooling them into taking a bait. Two, when they hit the frying pan, they are a real treat to the taste buds. Snook in Costa Rica move freely in and out of salt and fresh waters, making the angling possibilities for them almost endless. Snook are abundant at the river mouths that run into the ocean and also can be found far up the rivers and creeks, miles from the ocean. Their habits are similar to the striped bass and are easily identified by their distinct black lateral line.
The common snook is the largest and most sought after of the Carribean snook. The world record is 53 lbs 10 oz taken nearly 20 years ago by Gilbert Ponzi at the mouth of the Rio Parismina. Many 40 pound fish are landed every year, and several fish larger than Ponzi’s have been taken by locals on handlines. The next all-tackle world record is definitely swimming in Costa Rican waters. Nearly all fishing on the Caribbean side is done with artificial baits with bucktail and plastic tail jigs are the most popular. Some of the biggest snook have been taken by accident while fishing for tarpon.Even famous fly fisherman Bill Barnes readily admits his target was tarpon on 16 pound tippet when his world record snook hit. Many of the locals have become experts at taking snook in the surf. The locals call them “robalo.”
These feisty critters begin showing up in November and are taken through February. In December and January they are in schools of thousands. They are common from 2 to 8 lbs and average around 4 lbs. It is no great feat to catch 50 of them in a day. There is a difference of opinion where they come from. Some think they are leaving Lake Nicaragua on the way to the ocean to spawn. Others believe they are a reef snook and enter the river to travel up current the great lake.
One thing is certain: They are only found in bodies of water that eventually lead to Lake Nicaragua. Fat Snook are taken by jigging, trolling and casting crankbaits. In years past anglers used to come down in droves, filling their coolers with fillets before returning home. Today that attitude has changed somewhat and a few are taken back to camp for dinner while most are released. The locals call fat Snook “calva” or “calba” and like their origin, there is even a difference of opinion on how to spell their name.
They resemble the tarpon with their huge eye and anal fin. A smaller Snook, usually 2 to 3 lbs., they make for great fun on ultralight tackle, easily caught within fresh hatches of shrimps because they often clear the water completely in their excitement to fill their bellies. Tarpon Snook can be found in the main river channel as well as in the back lagoons and creeks. Small bucktail jigs or flies will fool them and they also make for great table fare. The locals refer to them as “cara seca” which means dry face.
The smallest of the Caribbean Snooks rarely going more than a pound and a half, the swordspine is readily identified by its huge first spine of the anal fin. The anal spine on a one pound swordspine is larger than the spine on a forty pound common Snook. They are usually caught by accident while fishing for other backwater exotics like guapote, mojarra and machaca. Small top water plugs, jigs, and flies will aggravate them into striking. The locals call them by an English name, “hard bone”.
TIPS AND TACKLE SUGGESTIONS
TARPON: Rods of 6 1/2 to 7 feet designed to handle 12 to 20 pound line are most popular. Twenty pound line is practical, though 12 and 15 are used frequently. Because some tarpon fishing is done with lures weighing around two ounces, sufficient rod backbone in tip and butt section is desired. Because tarpon average 80 lbs, the butt strength is important to raise them by jumping. Reels should be sturdy, with smooth drag systems, and have a capacity of at least 200 yards of the test line you choose.
SNOOK: In the surf, a 10 and 12 pound line is usually sufficient. Rods should be light enough for continuous casting without causing fatigue. Spinning rods of medium weight designed to handle 10 to 20 pound test line are ideal. Six to seven foot lengths are popular.
Plug casting rods in 5 to 6 foot lengths are popular for inside waters, while in the surf 6 and 7 are better suited. Surf fishing along this coast does not require the type of long sticks used along the mid Atlantic shores of the U.S. Most one-handed spinning or bait casting tackle will be sufficient. Reels for snook should have a capacity of 150 to 200 yards and a good drag system.
FLY FISHING: For Tarpon, rods that will handle 12 or 13 line are best. Snook can be fished with success on tackle which handle lines in size 8 or 9. Tarpon reels, of course, should have a very smooth drag and have capacity of at least 200 yds with 20-30 backing. On occasion it’s not necessary to go deep, so we urge fly fisherman to bring a variety of shooting heads up to 850 grains. Don’t forget to bring your lighter bass or trout gear for the smaller species such as machaca and guapote. They provide lots of sport on tackle matching their size.
TACKLE REQUIREMENTS: Choice of tackle depends upon both a fisherman’s skill and his desires. Recommendations here are simply general guidelines.